Three weeks’ worth of reviews

AVENGERS #301 (Marvel, 1989) – C-/D+. This is from the very brief period when the Avengers membership consisted of Cap, Thor, Reed Richards, Sue Storm and Gilgamesh. The only truly interesting thing about this issue is Cap and Reed’s constant bickering over leadership; Reed keeps trying to give orders and Cap has to remind him who’s in charge. Unfortunately this just underscores that Reed and Sue are completely unsuited to the Avengers, because they are not the same kind of superheroes as Cap and Thor; they are explorers, not fighters. Gilgamesh, moreover, is a totally redundant character; he has the same powers as Thor or Hercules but no personality to speak of. Also, the plot of this issue is of no interest at all. No wonder this lineup didn’t last long.

SUPERMAN’S GIRL FRIEND LOIS LANE #109 (DC, 109) – D+. The first story in this issue is quite sexist, as it suggests that women are motivated exclusively by love. The premise is that an old professor of Lana’s, Lorraine Denison, blames Lois for stealing Lana from Superman, so she performs an operation on Lois that makes Lois incapable of loving anyone. And as a result Lois becomes a complete sociopath. I suppose that almost makes sense, but the problem is, first, Professor Denison is an extremely unflattering portrayal of a female scientist; the story suggests that her life was completely ruined when her boyfriend rejected her in her youth, even though she went on to a distinguished scientific career. And on the same page, we learn that Lana only took a job in broadcasting to get Clark to propose to her, and if he doesn’t, “I’ll just die.” Apparently, for Cary Bates, a woman’s career was just something she did while waiting to get married. The Rose & Thorn backup story is marginally better, but still boring.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #367 (Marvel, 1992) – C+. David Michelinie is one of my favorite Spider-Man writers, but the end of his run coincided with one of the worst periods in the character’s history. This issue is part of the return-of-Peter’s-parents story, which was a lead-in to the Clone Saga and is therefore somewhat tainted by association. Furthermore, this issue guest-stars Solo, a character who I assume was created because David couldn’t use the Punisher, as the two are barely distinguishable; Solo kills terrorists instead of mobsters, but in terms of his interactions with Spidey, it makes no difference. And Jerry Bingham is typically a good artist but this is not his best work; numerous panels are missing backgrounds.

GREEN LANTERN CORPS #9 (DC, 2007) – D-. This issue is incomprehensible because it’s the last issue of a story arc, and the writer, Keith Champagne, makes no effort to summarize what’s happened before or to identify any of the characters other than Guy Gardner. Whatever happened to the rule that every comic is someone’s first comic? Even if I could have understood this comic, though, I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it.

SHADE THE CHANGING MAN #27 (DC, 1992) – A. This series is one of the forgotten classics of early ‘90s DC, and this issue is particularly interesting because of its exploration of gender issues. Having taken over the dead body of a woman, Shade tries to shapeshift her body into a male form, but fails, and unexpectedly wakes up with a female body. This is jarring for Shade both physically (having breasts reminds Shade of having “testicles on your chest”) and socially – the first man Shade meets, a cop, tries to ask Shade out, then calls her a “prick tease” behind her back when Shade turns him down. (Deliberately avoiding gendered pronouns here.) I don’t know how this compares to other works that depict men turning into women, if there are any such. But if nothing else, it seems like an honest attempt to depict how a man might feel upon discovering what it’s like to be a woman. The rest of the issue continues the emphasis on gender roles and sexual violence, as Shade, Kathy and Lenny try to solve the murder of Shade’s host body. I want to read the rest of this story.

SEX CRIMINALS #4 (Image, 2013) – A+. This review will appear on The Comics Alternative once I finish writing another review that I already promised them.

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #3 (Archie, 2014) – A+. I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that this is an ongoing; somehow I thought it was a limited series. This issue maintains the high level of quality of the previous two issues. One thing that makes this series so effective is that it excavates the dark secrets that have always lurked in the background of Archie stories. Aguirre-Sacassa shows us that Betty and Veronica are deeply jealous of each other despite being best friends, that Veronica and Jughead hate each other, that Mr. Lodge is an overprivileged oligarch who despises Archie for reasons of classism, etc. In my review of the last issue, I described this as realism and unsentimentality, but it’s also about airing dirty laundry, revealing the things that Archie stories always hinted at but were unwilling to mention. Clearly this sort of thing would not be appropriate in a traditional Archie comic, and I assume that Archie (the company, not the character) sees this series as a niche product aimed at older readers, distinct from their more kid-friendly flagship titles. Which is fine; I wish that DC would do the same thing, publishing mostly kid-friendly material as well as a smaller line of products for adult readers, rather than the other way around. On another note, I also want to mention that Francesco Francavilla’s artwork contributes significantly to the success of this comic. His pages are all built around large solid blocks of color, mostly orange with a little purple, and this technique is visually stunning and also produces a gloomy mood.

YOUNG AVENGERS #15 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. This is a reasonable conclusion to both this series and Kieron Gillen’s Loki epic. I just don’t see why this series had to end so quickly. Besides being one of the better Marvel comics in recent memory, it was the most successful Marvel comic since Runaways in terms of its appeal to non-traditional fans, and I wonder how Marvel is going to retain the interest of such readers (e.g. fans of the movie version of Loki) now that there’s no Young Avengers title. I do plan on reading Loki: Agent of Asgard, but without the superstar creative team of Gillen and McKelvie, that series will probably not have the same level of appeal. I did also think that this issue seemed kind of short, and as a very minor point, it’s kind of a cruel tease that Karolina Dean and Julie Power are prominently featured on the cover but not in the issue. The story ends with a splash page of the entire YA team, which produces a surprisingly powerful sense of nostalgia given that the series started just a year ago. (And the letters page even makes fun of this: “Oh man. 2013? Remembr that? We were so young and naïve then. So full of life, so full of hope,” etc.)

THE SIXTH GUN #25 (Oni, 2012) – A-. This is not a spectacularly great comic, but it is a well-plotted and well-drawn work of non-superhero genre fiction. I remember the name Brian Hurtt from Queen & Country, but I don’t remember his artwork very well; his work here, though, is quite solid. And Cullen Bunn does a good job of enabling a new reader to follow the story. I want to read more of this series, but I wonder if it might read better in trade form.

FANTASTIC FOUR #181 (Marvel, 1977) – B-. This issue is seriously hampered by the absence of George Perez, who took a month off due to a hand injury. The story is reasonably well-written, and Roy Thomas effectively balances a bunch of different subplots, but the story is never more than a retread of old Lee-Kirby material. I find it kind of disturbing that during this period Reed and Sue weren’t raising their own son. And in this issue, when Agatha kidnaps Franklin right in front of Sue’s eyes, she doesn’t seem nearly as distraught as you’d expect.

IRON MAN #104 (Marvel, 1977) – C. I hate Bill Mantlo’s writing. I’m very sorry about the tragedy that happened to him, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve never read a comic by him that I enjoyed – with the exception of Incredible Hulk #312, and I believe the allegations that that story was (perhaps unintentionally) plagiarized from Barry Windsor-Smith. This issue does little to change my opinion of Mantlo’s writing. It’s not offensively bad, but it gets bogged down in convoluted plotting and soap opera to the extent that it doesn’t feel like an Iron Man comic. Most of the issue is devoted to the love triangle between Tony, Jasper Sitwell and Whitney Frost, but Mantlo offers little reason why the reader should care about these characters; there is no chemistry to speak of between Tony and Whitney. I am a huge fan of soap-opera plotting and relationship drama in superhero comics, but only when it’s executed well. Furthermore, at this point in time Iron Man had no truly interesting supporting characters.

IRON MAN #124 (Marvel, 1979) – A+. The original Michelinie/JR Jr./Layton run is the high point of this series, surpassing even the original Lee/Colan material from Tales of Suspense. This run was better than what came before because of a variety of factors: David Michelinie was the best dialogue writer in superhero comics at the time, and his dialogue here is sparkling, adding interest to fight scenes that would have been boring otherwise. At the start of the issue, for example, Boomerang, Blizzard and Melter all have distinctive speech patterns; another writer would have had them all speak in generic villain dialogue. For perhaps the first time in the series’ history, Michelinie and Layton gave Tony an impressive cast of supporting characters, including Rhodey, Mrs. Arbogast and especially Bethany Cabe, who was basically the Marvel equivalent of Silver St. Cloud. JR Jr.’s artwork is solid and exciting; I like his late ‘70s/early ‘80s work much more than his later output, which looks too busy to me, and I think Layton was his best inker. And the ongoing Justin Hammer/alcoholism storyline is brilliantly plotted. Michelinie and Layton balance a lot of plot threads at once, all of which culminate in a deeply satisfactory way in issues 127 and 128 (followed by a massive anticlimax in #129, but oh well). This issue advances that plot with one of the more shocking scenes in the series’ history, where Tony is manipulated into killing an ambassador. Overall Iron Man was never this good before and never would be again.

THE ASTOUNDING WOLF-MAN #7 (Image, 2008) – B+. Reading this issue I didn’t realize it was the conclusion to the first story arc. That makes sense, though, since in this issue the status quo of the series changes radically: the main character’s wife is murdered and his daughter blames him for it. As that sentence indicates, this story has an extremely dark tone. The Astounding Wolf-Man is not responsible for his wife’s murder, and yet it feels like his daughter is correct to blame him, that somehow he caused this to happen because he enjoyed being a werewolf too much. Kirkman writes on the letters page that this series is supposed to be a “thematic middleground” between Invincible and Walking Dead, but it seems closer to the latter than the former. The trouble is that Jason Howard’s artwork is totally unsuited to this type of story. When I see his art, I think of Super Dinosaur and Wheels. And that’s because his style is essentially cartoonish; when he draws blood and gore, it looks like cartoon blood and gore. That makes it very difficult to take this story seriously.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #219 (Marvel, 1981) – B+. This story is a surprisingly well-plotted thriller in which Peter breaks into a prison to research a story on a series of prison breaks, then gets accused of masterminding the prison breaks himself. Probably due to his experience writing Batman, Denny does an effective job of resolving this rather convoluted story in a way that makes perfect sense. This issue also depicts Peter Parker having an adventure when not disguised as Spider-Man, which is unusual. The primary problem is that this story is hard to fit into continuity and seems excessively self-contained; it’s odd that Peter (not Spider-Man) is indicted for helping criminals escape from jail, but that this event is never referred to again afterward. And the ending of the story is a bit abrupt. I also find it hard to believe that Aunt May was able to come up with $50,000 for Peter’s bail, even by pooling a lot of other people’s money.

BATMAN: LI’L GOTHAM #9 (DC, 2014) – A-. Partly due to a lack of other stuff to buy, I decided to break my DC boycott and buy the last issue of this series. It’s not like my boycott of DC is accomplishing anything, and I do feel that Li’l Gotham represents exactly the kind of comic that I want DC to publish, and so maybe I can justify buying it… I do feel a bit bad about having bought this comic, though. Oh well. The first story in this issue was hilarious, but also frustrating due to the excessive level of fanservice. The story takes place at the Gotham Comic Convention, which is a transparent parody of Comic-Con. For example, Bruce and Damian are denied entry because they don’t have four-day passes, and then when Alfred tries to buy tickets, the online registration system is broken. Clearly jokes like these are aimed not at the younger readers who should be this comic’s target audience, but at people like me, and even I didn’t think the jokes were all that funny. (Though the “Register for next next year today!” sign at the end is cute.) The backup story was significantly better. It stars the Carpenter, a villain who I’ve never heard of before, but who I instantly love because she’s a woman practicing a traditionally male profession. The little vignettes where other villains call to offer her work are hilarious, especially the one where the Riddler calls and identifies himself with a riddle rather than his name. The disturbing subtext, though, is that the story is all about Labor Day, and it depicts the Carpenter being unable to enjoy her day off, and worrying about being put out of work once Batman imprisons all her supervillain clients. Maybe this is some sort of commentary on DC’s labor practices.

JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE #12 (DC, 1990) – A-. This is a satisfying conclusion to an ongoing story involving Metamorpho’s mutant baby. Bill Loebs is not the equal of JM DeMatteis as a dialogue writer, but he (along with DeMatteis, who is credited as the plotter) shows a solid understanding of the relationship between Rex, Simon, Sapphire and Java. The original Metamorpho series had some of the best characterization of any DC comic of its time, and this issue is faithful to Bob Haney’s portrayal of these characters. Loebs also provides an effective portrayal of the Metal Men, who guest-star in this issue for some reason. The conclusion to the story is quite powerful: We discover that the baby has a mutation which causes anyone who touches it to melt (as Java finds out the hard way), but that Sapphire is immune to her baby’s powers because of unexplained genetic factors. So Rex hands the baby to Simon, and in a full-page splash, we see Simon’s heart melting as he holds his grandson, and the fight ends peacefully. And then Rex reveals that he actually gave Simon the baby because, not realizing Simon shared Sapphire’s genetic immunity, he thought Simon would die. Heh. The only downside is that Rex and Sapphire don’t get back together at the end, and Loebs and DeMatteis underscore that by ending the issue with a reunion between Rocket Red and his children.

After reading this issue, I wondered what actually happened to Metamorpho’s son after the 1990s Metamorpho miniseries, and it turned out he did make one further appearance, in an issue I bought a couple years ago but never read:

JLA #52 (DC, 2001) – A-. This issue begins with a little boy listening to his mother and grandfather arguing, and wishing that his absent father would come back. Meanwhile the JLA’s human and superheroic identities have somehow been split into separate bodies. Mark Waid does a nice job of depicting the effects of this. A particularly poignant moment is when John Jones asks Aquaman to not let him be reunited with the Martian Manhunter, because he doesn’t want the burden of J’onn’s memories of Mars. (On the other hand, Mark, like every writer except Jack Cole and Kyle Baker, gets Plastic Man completely wrong. He portrays Plas as the team clown. This is consistent with Grant Morrison’s version of the character, but not with Jack Cole’s original intent. Plas is supposed to be serious and humorless; it’s everything around him that’s supposed to be hilarious.) Subsequently, we find out that the little boy from page one is none other than Joey Mason, Metamorpho and Sapphire’s son and the Cathexis – the same creatures who split the JLA’s human and superhero selves – have granted his wish. But because he worded it wrong, they brought back his father as an undead elemental monstrosity, rather than restoring him to life. The JLA save Joey, Simon and Sapphire, of course, but it’s a bittersweet moment, especially since Metamorpho manages to shout Joey’s name before vanishing. And I suspect these characters haven’t been seen again since, at least not in this continuity. A nice touch in this issue is that the Cathexis, who are supposed to be sixth-dimensional creatures, have cubical word balloons.

JLA #54 (DC, 2001) – B+. This is a reasonable conclusion to the Cathexis storyline, but it’s kind of a by-the-numbers superhero story; the most interesting aspect of the story is that Wonder Woman gets to save the day. I wonder if Mark Waid would have been a better Wonder Woman writer than some of the people who were writing that series at this time. Bryan Hitch’s artwork here and in the previous issue is quite impressive; I actually think it almost looks better here than in The Authority or The Ultimatess, though I couldn’t quantify why. Maybe it has something to do with the paper quality.

JLA #55 (DC, 2001) – C+. This is the sort of thing I typically expect from Bryan Hitch: it’s essentially an entire issue full of action sequences depicted largely in widescreen format, with a lack of actual narrative. The main plot here is that the JLA fights a bunch of white Martians, and Mark has to lampshade the fact that this was exactly the plot of the first storyline in this series. There is also a disturbing scene where Lois suffers from mind control, which causes her to lick Clark Kent’s ear in public, then unmask him. It’s kind of disturbing.

AVENGERS #226 (Marvel, 1982) – C+. This issue was part of a brief four-issue interlude between two longer runs by Shooter and Stern, and unfortunately it’s much worse than the issues around it. The only thing I like about it is Steven Grant’s use of Irish gods like Balor and Bres. Otherwise this story is formulaically written and unexcitingly drawn.

THE MIGHTY THOR SAGA #1 (Marvel, 2011) – F. Not actually a comic book but a free promotional pamphlet released in tandem with Journey into Mystery #622, which summarizes many years of Thor continuity very quickly. Not worth the time it took to read.

MARVEL KNIGHTS 4 #14 (Marvel, 2005) – C+/B-. Roberto Aguirre-Sacassa was supposed to have replaced Mark Waid on Fantastic Four, but due to massively negative reactions from fans (including me), they rehired Mark and had Aguirre-Sacassa write this series instead. This issue demonstrates that he was no match for Mark as an FF writer; while it’s not offensively bad, it’s a very standard Alicia/Puppet Master story that offers nothing new at all. Furthermore, the art by Jim Muniz is terrible, especially in terms of facial expressions. There’s one two-page sequence that includes three different panels where Sue has the exact same face.

LEGION LOST #5 (DC, 2012) – F. This is a thoroughly mediocre comic; its only redeeming feature is Pete Woods’s art, and even then his version of Tellus is off-model. The larger problem is that this series had no reason to exist. There was no reason why this story needed to be told, or why Paul Levitz needed to be deprived of the use of the characters in it – not that Paul would have made any better use of those characters, but still.
But there is a bigger problem here. The big reveal in this issue is that the Hypertaxis is why racism and xenophobia no longer exist in the 31st century: “The Hypertaxis will eventually eliminate the barriers of skin color, religion or geography. You have turned a race of diverse, diffident, diffuse homo sapiens into a unified future race of hypersapiens.” I think this is bullshit. First, if Fabian ever explained how the Hypertaxis makes people stop being racist or nationalistic, then I missed it. More importantly, the implication is that people are not capable of overcoming racism on their own, and that we can only do so with the aid of deus ex machina technology. That completely contradicts the point of Paul’s Legion. Paul said in this interview that “if we don’t learn to live together, we won’t make it to the 31st century.” In other words, for Paul, the fact that humanity still exists in the 31st century implies that people have learned to overcome racism and nationalism, and that explains why his Legion is so optimistic. But according to Fabian, people wouldn’t have outgrown racism and nationalism on their own if it weren’t for the Hypertaxis. To which my response is, screw that.

R.E.B.E.L.S. #12 (DC, 2010) – B-. Tony Bedard is only an average writer, but this series was fairly fun to read and effectively recaptured the atmosphere of L.E.G.I.O.N. The main attraction of this issue is the interactions between various alien characters with diverse and bizarre personalities. As usual with this series and its predecessor, the plot is mostly driven by Vril Dox, a classic magnificent bastard. But there is also a huge and diverse ensemble cast. The best scene in the issue is where Kanjar Ro is sent on a mission to recover his gamma gong from some Starro minions who have conquered his planet, but he decides to ignore the mission because “you do not give me orders in my own palace!”

R.E.B.E.L.S. #25 and #27 (DC, 2011) – B-. Similar to the previous issue. At this point the primary reason I was buying this series was because of Starfire; I think Tony Bedard is the only writer besides Marv Wolfman who is able to write this character properly.


Meditations on my first MLA

This post is a longer version of a tweet that I posted this morning, where I said that MLA is basically the humanities version of Dragon*Con. I’ve always had the impression that MLA was this horrible nightmare that everyone hated. On Friday I spoke with a tenured professor in my department, and s/he said that when she got tenure, the first thing s/he did was cancel his/her MLA membership. And I can totally understand why this perception exists. MLA has historically been the place where people go to seek jobs, so the place has a pervasive atmosphere of fear and anxiety and gloom. And being on the job market myself, I am certainly not immune to that.

However, in many ways I’ve been having a great time at MLA. I’ve seen lots of old friends, I’ve gotten to meet all kinds of people I previously only knew through the Internet, and I’ve heard all sorts of fascinating papers on a diverse range of topics, including some that exposed me to completely new ideas. (For example, I only attended session 146 because my first-choice session was full, but I ended up hearing some fascinating presentations on Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts, a subject I know nothing about at all.) And livetweeting has been a ton of fun, especially due to the conference’s generous provision of tables reserved for the use of tweeters and bloggers. But even beyond any of that, I just enjoy being in an environment where every single person is a humanities scholar. If I just choose a random person to talk to — and I have, several times — it is a certainty that we will have acquaintances in common or that we’ll have shared interests.

Now despite all this, I think I can guess why people dread this event so much. It’s because we humanities scholars tend to be introverted, shy people, and therefore we tend not to be comfortable in a large anonymous event full of thousands of strangers. I think I’m more used to this sort of environment because I’ve been going to comic book conventions since I was in high school. So I have this experience of being in a situation where it’s okay to talk to people I don’t know, because I feel a certain preexisting kinship with them. And really MLA is that kind of situation for me.

MLA also has certain other similarities to a comic book convention — there are panels and an exhibit hall, and everyone wears a costume, though unlike at Dragon*Con, everyone at MLA is cosplaying as the same character. And while not everyone is here because they want to be here, at some level everyone who is at this conference is deeply passionate about the humanities, in the same way that everyone at Dragon*Con is passionate about geek culture in one way or another.

Clearly there is a lot to dislike about this conference, and I am not willing to say, as Roger Whitson says about THATcamp, that I will always love MLA. But I also can’t say that I hate it.